Welcome to Rouen, France, a city where the cider flows freely (it’s a Normandy thing), and the streets are lined with crooked, half-timbered houses that send a singular, ye-olde message: you’re on some seriously ancient stomping grounds.
Rouen’s power and influence can be traced from its founding by a sturdy Celtic tribe, to its pivotal role in the fate of Joan of Arc, who was actually burned at the stake in the town’s centre. The star of the show, however, is inarguably the city’s jaw-dropping Cathédral Notre-Dame de Rouen.
The gothic-style monolith has just the kind of track-record you’d expect; It was established in the 4th century, frequented by Charlemagne, and even houses the remains of Richard the Lionhearted (whose bowels are apparently buried in another city…but we digress).
It seems that every inch of the structure is filled with gargoyles and stoic statues, and the resultant atmosphere would be rather somber were it not for the presence of one curious, little statue carved into the façade: Princess Salomé.
That’s right, in a crowd of cranky looking medieval statues, Salomé appears to be having a grand old time. So good, in fact, that she’s dancing on her hands during what appears to be a banquet scene.
So who is this medieval breakdancing anomaly? Even amongst some pretty stiff competition, her story is perhaps one of the most fascinating amongst the many legends gracing the cathedral’s walls…
Salomé was a first-century Judaic princess, and a bad girl of ancient history who is often used in the bible as an example of the temptations of sensuality. Her step-father was constantly trying to seduce her, which naturally infuriated her mother. According to legend, Salomé’s heart was broken by the would-be saint, John the Baptist, when he refused her kiss – and that’s when things got soap opera-level nasty.
Salomé’s mother was Princess Herodias, who left her husband for his brother, King Herod II. John the Baptist was openly disapproving of this second, “unlawful” marriage, brewing bad blood between himself and the Herodian dynasty, even more so after he rejected Salomé. The mother and daughter duo also didn’t have the best of relationships, mainly because of the hurt caused by King Herod II’s inability to resist his sexual desires towards his step-daughter.
Not long after her falling out with John, the King begged Salomé to dance for him at his birthday. He would reward the young Princess, he assured, with whatever she desired.
That’s when her mother suggested that Salome ask for John the Baptist’s head on a plate, as a means for her own political and personal leverage. In one fell swoop, the mother cornered her husband into executing a very popular prophet who had dared to judge her relationship choices — but at the same time, she fed her own daughter’s distress.
Salomé’s dance before the King and his court was a major, rather scandalous event that has been reinterpreted – and embellished — manifold times throughout history. Sometimes she is pictured dancing with the head of John, crying over it, you name it…
As fate would have it, Salomé ironically met her own end while crossing some frozen water. She fell through ice, and was decapitated.
The French Symbolist painter Gustave Moreau created several elaborate paintings of Salomé’s dance, and Oscar Wilde’s 1893 play, Salomé, heightened the drama of the story by dubbing her performance “the Dance of the Seven Veils,” during which an eerily veiled Salomé basically strip-teases for the King.
The tragic story has inspired numerous screen and stage interpretations, from a rather chipper, 1953 film version with Rita Hayworth, to one hell of an opera by Richard Strauss.
Salomé is not quite the figure one would expect to find dangling above a place of holy worship, but there she is, nevertheless, doing a handstand on the Rouen Catholic cathedral. Throughout history, the scandalous Princess has been painted as both a victim and a Machiavellian, a seductress and a feminist (particularly at the dawn of Women’s Suffrage). Today, the story of a young woman being inappropriately “seduced” is more relevant than ever – perhaps the part where she asserts her strength by asking for a man’s head on the silver platter, even more so (metaphorically speaking). Too bad she asked for the wrong head.